NEW YORK -- At the start of the season, Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik were supposed to form a partnership so magical that they could have been characters in another "Harry Potter" movie. Instead, they proved to be so mismatched that have rarely played together over the Rangers' first 68 games.
Perhaps all they needed was the presence of Carl Hagelin to make things work.
The newly formed line combined for 4 goals, 5 assists and 15 shots as the Rangers didn't look past the Carolina Hurricanes in a 4-2 victory on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. With Sidney Crosby and the red-hot Penguins coming to New York on Thursday night, the Rangers didn't let their closest pursuers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference become a distraction.
The dominant performance by Hagelin, Gaborik and Richards made sure of it, although coach John Tortorella admitted afterward he didn't see it coming.
"I don't know if it's going to work," Tortorella said. "In some of the shifts in the last month or so when we put them together after a penalty kill and all that, I thought there was something going on. So, you never know. Ritchie and Gabby at the beginning of the year, there was no chance. You could see that right away. But you never know when it's going to click."
Richards put together his second straight two-goal performance, pumping home his 22nd and 23rd goals of the season. Gaborik started the scoring with his 34th of the season, and when a 3-0 lead was whittled to 3-2, Hagelin notched his 13th of the season to cap the first three-point game of his career.
Goaltender Martin Biron, who was called into duty around 1 p.m. when he received word that Henrik Lundqvist (flu) would not be able to make the start, made 27 saves and had a real good view of how the Rangers' top line was playing.
"At times, they were throwing passes from one side of the boards to the other corner and it looked like it was a blind pass to get rid of the puck, but we were first on it," Biron said. "They were reading each other really well, creating a lot of buzz around their net. It was one of those nights where it seems like everything was connecting, and on the tape too."
Gaborik got the Rangers started 3:02 in the first period when he gathered a puck that kicked off the end boards from a shot by defenseman Dan Girardi and beat Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward, who was out of his net contesting the original shot.
The score remained that way until Richards struck for two goals 1:59 apart midway through the second period. The first came off a Hurricanes' turnover, with Jay Harrison unable to control the puck in front of Ward. Richards found the puck in the right circle and whipped a shot over Ward's glove to make it 2-0.
Richards used patience on his next goal, taking a pretty pass from Hagelin behind the net and out-waiting Ward before shooting it over the fallen goaltender to give the Rangers a three-goal advantage.
"He made some good passes tonight, but when I started playing with him a few weeks ago, he probably wouldn't have made them, so you can tell he has this confidence," Richards said of Hagelin, the rookie who made his NHL debut Nov. 25 and hasn't seen the AHL since. "He's seeing the ice. I think all three of us did tonight. He's making more plays now and that helps me, and it helps him get back open again to get the puck to the net."
The 23-year-old Hagelin, not surprisingly, deflected the credit back onto his veteran linemates.
"Both guys have had 80-plus points a lot of years in this League," said Hagelin, who has 33 points in 51 games. "Just being around them and seeing what they're doing has helped me a lot. Also, being around them off the ice, you can see how professional they are. That's also helped me a lot."
The Rangers were playing their second straight game without captain Ryan Callahan, who has now missed five games with a bruised foot and is listed as day to day. Tortorella thinks it's not a coincidence that Richards has stepped up the past two games in Callahan's absence.
"I'm sure he looks at it that way," Richards said. "He has been a guy trying to find himself here and a guy who is really hard on himself. He's done a lot of good things in the locker room. He's been good in a lot areas. He's been inconsistent, but still, I break down the tape. There's three or four plays he makes a game, even when he was inconsistent, that some guys can't make."
It wasn't a complete walkover for the Rangers. The Hurricanes struck for two quick goals from Tim Brent and Drayson Bowman, their 10th and third goals of the season, respectively, to make it 3-2 headed into the second intermission. Captain Eric Staal had a chance to tie on a shorthanded breakaway early in the third period, but his shot hit the post after being deflected by a diving Anton Stralman.
Hagelin put the game on ice with seven minutes remaining, beating Ward on a wraparound after more continued pressure from his line.
"He's fast and he knows he's quick," Gaborik said of Hagelin, who won the fastest skater competition at this year's All-Star Game. "When he has the puck, he spins around the defenseman and he gets open."
Richards said there was no looking past the Hurricanes to the Penguins, who are six points back for the top spot in the East, with the Rangers losing three straight and coming off a not-so-impressive win against the Islanders on Sunday to start a seven-game homestand.
"It was a little bit of an up-and-down game, which we don't usually play, but that's the way it went," Richards said. "We started off with two wins. Now we want to just keep building on it."
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